Secretary of State Colin Powell is winning cautious support for a Mideast policy speech that signals reinvigorated American participation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and outlines a vague agenda for returning to peace talks.
Delivered Monday at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, Powell's speech did not set forth any bold new initiatives or go into details on troublesome issues, such as the future of Jerusalem.
Contrary to expectations, however, Powell appeared to put less pressure on Israel than on the Palestinian Authority. Jewish analysts and activists alike said Powell had placed the immediate burden on the Palestinian Authority to stop violence and incitement.
The speech also laid down a general road map for what Israel and the Palestinian Authority must do to restore trust and return to the negotiating table -- but avoided several contentious issues that could have angered each party.
"A majority of the land mines were sidestepped," a senior Israeli official said.
For the most part, U.S. Jewish leaders welcomed Powell's speech with apprehensive enthusiasm.
"It has potential," said Tom Smerling, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. "It laid groundwork for something significant to happen, but it is not going to happen because of this speech."
To succeed, Smerling said, any initiative would need a stamp of approval from Bush and a day-by-day assessment of which side is keeping its promises.
American Jewish leaders emphasized the pressure Powell placed on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to control violence.
"Powell has made clear that the key to peace is in the hands of the Palestinians, who must make every effort to bring all acts of terror against Israelis to a complete halt," said Howard Kohr, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
However, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he was concerned that Powell appeared to express a "moral equivalency" between Israeli and Palestinian actions.
"There was no mention of who walked away last year from the peace process," Hoenlein said, referring to Palestinian rejection of an Israeli peace offer at the Camp David summit, and the subsequent launching of a yearlong campaign of violence.
Morton Klein, national director of the Zionist Organization of America, called Powell's speech "deeply disappointing," noting that America practically is recognizing a Palestinian state and asking Israel to make concessions before it sees any real change from the Palestinian leadership.
"At what point will the U.S. administration understand that Arafat isn't interested in creating a civilized society?" Klein asked.
Powell's address is seen as the starting point for renewed U.S. involvement in the peace process, with the appointment of a new envoy for the region who will try to hammer out a more lasting cease-fire.
Powell also reversed Bush administration policy on U.S. engagement, saying that America would "push," "prod" and "present ideas" to move the process forward -- a marked departure from the detachment Bush initially showed after the Clinton administration's vigorous involvement failed to produce a peace deal.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the Bush administration has placed a much greater emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, perceiving it as a threat to the stability of the international coalition in America's war on terror.
Powell called on Palestinians to end violence immediately -- and said they should be held accountable when they don't live up to signed agreements.
"Palestinians need to understand that however legitimate their claims, they cannot be heard, let alone be addressed, through violence," Powell said. "As President Bush has made clear, no national aspiration, no remembered wrong can ever justify the deliberate murder of the innocent. Terror and violence must stop, and stop now."
Powell also called on Israel to end all settlement activity, road closures and occupation of Palestinian territory, for the first time describing Israel as an "occupying power." Yet he did not appear to give those issues the same immediacy as he did to Palestinian responsibilities.
The administration's goals are to put the regional conflict in context, give it a sense of direction and provide principles for ending violence and other activities on the ground. The emphasis is on getting the two sides to implement already agreed-to steps, including a process to get back to negotiations authored by former Sen. George Mitchell and details for a cease-fire brokered by CIA Director George Tenet.
Drawing on those plans, the speech provided inducements that Israeli and Palestinian leaders can use to justify a return to negotiations, while preserving their political prestige.
"Both sides can take the speech as a reference point on how we are trying to take their needs into account," one senior Bush administration official said.
For the Palestinians, Powell reiterated American support for a Palestinian state and the promise of economic support. Echoing President Bush's landmark statement at the United Nations last week, Powell again used the name "Palestine" for the envisioned state.
"That's an official piece of the new American vocabulary," the administration official said.
In a nod toward Israel, Powell stressed the need to maintain Israel's character as a Jewish State -- an oblique rejection of Palestinian demands for refugees' "right of return" -- and as a secure country not threatened by Arab violence.
Powell also offered fulsome praise for the U.S.-Israel relationship, seen as an affirmation to nervous Israelis that U.S. support for Israel has not been undermined by the courting of Arab countries for the U.S. campaign against Osama bin Laden.
"The reaffirmation of the special relationship was the most explicit we've heard in a long time," Hoenlein said.
By all accounts, Powell threaded thin needles very carefully. He called for international monitors -- something Palestinians have sought and Israel has opposed -- but only if approved by both parties. He mentioned the future of Jerusalem and the "right of return" for Palestinian refugees, but only as examples of the need for understanding and negotiation.
In addition, noted Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), Powell did not discuss Israel's assassination of suspected Palestinian terror leaders. The State Department has criticized that policy, which Ackerman and others defend.
Powell also avoided discussing whether Israel should waive its demand for a week without violence before it approaches the negotiating table, as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon insists. Powell agreed to Sharon's condition when it was first made last summer, and Sharon has said that he will not budge.
The question remains, however, whether the speech will finally catalyze the two parties to action.
Powell is dispatching a team of negotiators to the region, including a new envoy, retired Marine Cmdr. Anthony Zinni, who will work with Israeli and Palestinian committees toward a cease-fire.
A senior administration official said he believes U.S. involvement will be "more sustained" than in previous years.
However, Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and one of the architects of the Oslo peace process, said the crucial part will be not Powell's speech, but its follow-through.
"Left to their own devices," Israel and the Palestinian Authority "can't do it," said Indyk, now a senior fellow at Brookings Institution. "We've seen that time and time again."
Indyk also said Powell should have made the address earlier in the year, placed more onus on the Arab states, and demanded more political and economic reforms from the Arab world.
David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Powell had "laid things out as clearly as one can."
"No speech on a subject of this complexity and sensitivity is going to be perfect," Harris said.
Arab groups also found points to praise. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said it was pleased by Powell's comments on settlement activity and Israeli occupation.
"This is the clearest declaration of its kind from a senior American official in many years, and it is a very important step in the right direction," the group's president, Ziad Asali, said. "We agree with the secretary that the violence must end, but we also realize that the occupation brings a structure of highly organized and extreme violence into the daily lives of ordinary Palestinians.''
JTA Staff Writer Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.
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